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Transit


Virginia commits to fund the Columbia Pike streetcar

The Commonwealth of Virginia will dedicate funding for up to half the cost of the Columbia Pike streetcar project.


Photo by Fairfax County on Flickr.

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne announced $65 million in dedicated streetcar funding today, above and beyond state money Arlington and Fairfax had already hoped to receive.

More state funding means Arlington and Fairfax won't have to rely on the cumbersome federal New Starts funding process. That will speed up construction by a year, and save at least $25 million in costs.

Arlington County Board Chair Jay Fisette has repeatedly said that Arlington would not finance the project using homeowner property taxes. This new money guarantees Arlington can stick to that promise.

Roads


A realigned Columbia Pike inches toward reality

The east end of Columbia Pike in Arlington already looks quite different after the 70-year-old Navy Annex was torn down last year, but it may change even more under a proposed 3-way land swap between Arlington County, the Department of Defense, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.


Map by Arlington County.

The swap envisions realigning Columbia Pike, removing the old Southgate Road, building a new Southgate Road, and completely reworking the Columbia Pike-Washington Boulevard interchange.

Arlington National Cemetery is running out of land for additional burials. That is largely driving this deal, which will give the cemetery more contiguous land, but it also means beneficial changes for the transportation network.

While the exact parcels have not been fully identified, the swap will likely mostly resemble the map above. The cemetery will get the green area, consisting of old Navy Annex land, the former Southgate Road and former Columbia Pike, South Joyce Street, and portions of the Columbia Pike-Washington Boulevard cloverleaf interchange.

The yellow area will go to Arlington for a proposed Freedmen's Village museum and other public uses. The blue area is DoD property that used to house a gas station and the purple is part of the current cloverleaf.

Columbia Pike gets straightened out and rebuilt. The new portion of Columbia Pike would include 4 general-purpose lanes and a sidewalk on the south side. A 10-foot sidepath on the north side would connect with a similar sidepath planned for this section of Columbia Pike.

The cloverleaf with Route 27 would become a more compact diamond interchange. A new Southgate Road would connect Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall to Columbia Pike by a shorter route than the road today.

An earlier land swap proposal was authorized in 2008 which would not have realigned the Pike. It would have simply swapped the county's Southgate Road right-of-way for a similarly-sized piece of the Navy Annex, but it was tabled in 2012.

Arlington and the federal government signed a new memorandum of understanding in 2013, and authority to make the swap recently appeared in the proposed Department of Defense appropriations bill.

Transit


Bus stop or transit station? It's not all the same thing

The more riders who use a bus stop, the larger and more amenity-filled the stop should be. That's the message behind this nifty infographic from Arlington, showing the basic types of stops, and when they're appropriate.


Image from Arlington County

Much of the outcry over Arlington's "million-dollar bus stop" seemed to stem from the widespread belief that all bus stops are the same. But while the Arlington stops did benefit from a redesign, the general idea that "a bus stop is a bus stop is a bus stop" is wrong. Actually there are several different kinds, appropriate in different times and places.

For very small stops, used by less than about 40 passengers per day, simple "flag pole" bus stops are perfectly fine.

Bigger stops serving up to a couple hundred people per day need a little extra space for waiting, and at that level it's nice to provide basic amenities like seats and trash cans, so transit agencies step it up with sheltered bus stops.

But what if there's even more passengers? What if you're getting as many riders as a light rail or BRT station, on the order of a few hundred or even a thousand per day?

At that level you naturally need a station comparable to light rail or BRT, bigger with more waiting area. And it makes sense to introduce even more amenities that can speed up service or improve the customer experience, like high curbs for level boarding, off-vehicle fare payment, real-time arrival displays, and bike racks.

Meanwhile, when hundreds or thousands of riders a day are using a single space, it's no longer just a bus stop. At that point, it's a highly-visible civic gathering spot.

And as important it is to provide transit riders with attractive facilities, it's also important even for non-transit riders that our civic spaces be attractive. Thus it's appropriate for large transit stations to look nicer (and cost more, and last longer) than a row of mass produced bus shelters.

The continuum of transit stations doesn't even stop there. For more than 1,000 riders per day you start to need entire buildings with space for multiple vehicles, bathrooms, a staffed information desk, and more. Or you need bus subway stations, which are vastly more expensive still.

What's appropriate on Columbia Pike?

With about 16,000 bus riders per day, Columbia Pike is already the busiest bus corridor in Virginia. Buses on Columbia Pike carry more riders each day than the Norfolk light rail, and about as many as either of VRE's two commuter rail lines. It's a serious transit corridor.

And it's only going to get more serious. With the streetcar, transit ridership on Columbia Pike is expected to approximately double, to over 30,000 per day by 2030.

That's a lot of riders. That's considerably more than any bus route in DC, and about 1/3 the expected 2030 ridership of the Metrorail Silver Line. That many riders need and deserve good facilities.

What's odd about the debate in Arlington is that everyone seems to agree Columbia Pike needs vastly improved transit, but people are outraged about the costs anyway. Opponents to the planned streetcar aren't saying "don't build anything." They're saying "build BRT instead."

Putting aside the fact that full BRT is impossible because Arlington isn't allowed to dedicate Columbia Pike's lanes for transit, these expensive bus stations are exactly what BRT looks like. No matter whether you favor streetcar or bus, big transit stations are necessary.

And no matter where you go, they're expensive. For example, BRT stations in Eugene, OR run $445,000, while in Grand Rapids, MI they're $662,000. Norfolk's light rail stations are $762,000.

Naturally, Arlington isn't building these larger transit stations at every bus stop. They're only going in at a handful of the busiest stops, where passenger capacities meet that threshold of a few hundred per day, or soon will.

For example, according to Arlington Transit Bureau Chief Steve Del Giudice, the eastbound Walter Reed station is currently hosting about 525 boardings per day (that's boardings only, not including alightings). Assume it doubles with the streetcar, and Walter Reed will soon have over 1,000 boardings per day.

That's half as many boardings as the Arlington Cemetery Metro station. Far too many for a simple shelter.

Budget


Arlington can't forget what made it what it is

It's a truism in politics that if you repeat a statement often enough, people will believe it, regardless of whether it's true. In Arlington, a cohort of commentators and activists has been chanting that the County Board is full of profligate spenders. Now that claim has started to have currency in county politics, even though it's grounded in little at all.


Historic photo of Rosslyn via Arlington Fire Journal.

Fifty years ago, Arlington was an aging suburb that progress had passed by on the way to greener pastures in Fairfax County. Outdated retail strips, struggling businesses and a declining population portended a bleak future. State and federal planners saw Arlington mostly as space to be traversed between home and work, and they proposed cutting up its neighborhoods for commuter roads.

County residents and leaders did not respond to this challenge by spending as little as possible in the vain hope that doing so would attract people and economic growth. Instead, they campaigned to build an expensive Metrorail subway and put it under Wilson Boulevard, with the goal of transforming it from a tired suburban strip into a new downtown. They planned walkable centers with more housing, jobs and retail, plus new streets and sidewalks.

Continue reading my latest op-ed in the Washington Post.

Transit


Arlington's streetcars will carry more riders than VRE or the entire Richmond bus network combined

Here's the simplest reason to build a streetcar on Columbia Pike: Absolutely tons of people will ride it. The latest ridership projections show that by 2035 there will be more streetcar riders on Columbia Pike and in Crystal City than there are on VRE or riding buses in Richmond today.


Streetcar and buses in Toronto. Photo by Sean_Marshall on flickr.

The latest ridership projections for the streetcar are huge. By 2035, 37,100 riders per day are expected to use the combined Columbia Pike / Crystal City line, which will operate as a single through route. Another 22,700 will ride buses daily, for a total of 59,800 riders in the corridor.

For comparison, VRE carries about 20,000 per day, and as of 2011 (the most recent data available), the entire Richmond metropolitan area bus system carried an average of 35,200 riders per day. That's every bus route in the whole region put together.

Granted, comparing 2035 projections to contemporary ridership is not exactly valid. Surely by 2035 VRE and Richmond's GRTC will be carrying more riders than they are now.

But these comparisons are useful nonetheless. They give us a sense of the scale of transit demand on Columbia Pike.

Let's keep going. According to the American Public Transportation Association's 4th quarter 2013 ridership report, here are more total networks that the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcar's 37,100 daily riders in 2035 will beat or approximately match:

  • MARC commuter rail (34,100 riders per day)
  • Regional light rail systems in Baltimore (26,800), San Jose (34,300), New Orleans (20,200), Minneapolis (30,100), Charlotte (15,400), Buffalo (17,400), Pittsburgh (28,300), Houston (38,300), Seattle (33,200), Norfolk (5,000 in 2012)
  • Regional bus networks in Indianapolis (35,000), Memphis (28,700), Nashville (31,200)
  • Fairfax Connector bus system (36,300)
  • Prince William County Omni-Ride bus system (13,400)
Of course there are plenty of bigger systems out there. Here's a sampling from the same data:
  • Subway systems such as New York (8,733,300), WMATA (855,300), Atlanta (221,200), and even Baltimore (48,500)
  • Light rail systems such as Los Angeles (200,900), Sacramento (46,400), Portland (115,300), Dallas (98,300), and Saint Louis (53,000)
  • Bus networks like Baltimore (237,600), Montgomery County Ride-On (86,600), WMATA (441,100), and Norfolk (52,800 in 2012)
Now let's compare the ridership projections for Columbia Pike / Crystal City with other rail projects near the DC region:Each of those projects will carry more riders than the Columbia Pike / Crystal City streetcars, but each of them also has a price tag in the multiple billions of dollars. Streetcars in Arlington will cost hundreds of millions, but produce great bang for the buck.

The bottom line

With 16,000 daily bus riders today, Columbia Pike is already Virginia's busiest bus corridor. By 2035 there will be nearly 60,000 combined streetcar and bus trips on the Columbia Pike / Crystal City corridor, with 42,800 of those coming on Columbia Pike.

Streetcar detractors want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike by bus alone than the entire Richmond or Norfolk regional bus networks move in sum total. They want you to believe it's practical to move more people on Columbia Pike with buses than MARC or VRE move on commuter rail, or that Baltimore, Minneapolis, or Houston move on light rail.

That's ridiculous. The huge transit demand on Columbia Pike easily justifies rail, and it comes at a better cost value than other rail projects around the region. To suggest otherwise ignores reality.

Transit


Million dollars no more: What's in and what's out of Arlington's redesigned Columbia Pike bus stations

Arlington has redesigned and value-engineered a series of transit stations proposed along Columbia Pike, after the original prototype drew criticism for costing a lot and not adequately keeping out the weather. The new design is both less expensive and more effective.


The new design. All images from Arlington County.

Controversy and review

Last year Arlington unveiled the first of a planned series of "super-stop" bus stations along Columbia Pike, near the intersection with Walter Reed Drive. The prototype cost nearly one million dollars, outraging many in the community who felt it extravagantly expensive for "just a bus stop."

But that wasn't the only criticism. The prototype's angled roof and undersized rear and side panels don't offer much protection against the elements.

Arlington heard the outrage and suspended further construction to review the design. The review came out last week, and proposes a new design that's significantly cheaper, but also better in a number of ways.

The new design


Elevation (top) and plan view (bottom) of the new design.

Like the prototype, the new design includes a large glass canopy and glass walls, seating, displays with real-time arrival information, and platform-like curbs.

Unlike the prototype, the canopy is a simple boxy shape that's cheaper and easier to manufacture, more flexible to multiple configurations, and better at keeping out rain and snow. The roof is lower and slopes more gently, meaning rain will have to be falling nearly sideways to get in from the front.

From the back, the rear panels extend higher, closer to the roof. They leave a much smaller gap between the wall and roof, adequate for air circulation but much less prone to let in rain or snow.

Likewise, the side panels are more carefully placed, boxing in the waiting area more effectively.


The new design, showing more effective side panels

The new design eliminates one of the most controversial elements from the prototype, an underground heating system that melts snow and ice. But with this improved canopy and wall layout, fewer elements will get into the station in the first place.

Another major improvement is that real time information will come in multiple ways: On a large main display to one side, and also on displays hung from the roof. The hanging displays will be easier for waiting passengers to see from afar.

And all of this comes via a relatively inexpensive standardized tool kit.


Tool kit of standardized parts.

Since the pieces can fit together any way Arlington wants, they'll use different configurations at different locations. There will be longer stations with more seating at bigger corners, and smaller ones at more constrained sites.

If the new tool kit proves effective, Arlington may even use some of the same pieces elsewhere, such as in Crystal City.

Arlington is planning to move ahead with construction of the new design at 8 locations up and down Columbia Pike, with more coming after that. The county expects the next 8 stations to be open by 2017.

Transit


The DC region has over 250 miles of planned light rail, streetcar, & BRT

What do you get when you plot onto a single map every known light rail, streetcar, and BRT plan in the DC region? One heck of a huge transit network, is what.


Every planned light rail, streetcar, and BRT line in the DC region. Click the map to open a zoom-able interactive version. Map by the author, using Google basemap.

This map combines the DC streetcar and MoveDC bus lane plan with the Arlington streetcar plan, the Alexandria transitway plan, Montgomery's BRT plan, and Fairfax's transit network plan, plus the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, the Long Bridge study, the Wilson Bridge transit corridor, and finally the Southern Maryland transit corridor.

Add the route mileage from all of them up and you get 267 miles of proposed awesomeness, not including the Silver Line or other possible Metrorail expansions.

To be sure, it will be decades before all of this is open to passengers, if ever.

The H Street Streetcar will be the first to open this year, god willing, with others like the Purple Line and Columbia Pike Streetcar hopefully coming before the end of the decade. But many of these are barely glimpses in planners' eyes, vague lines on maps, years or decades away from even serious engineering, much less actual operation.

For example, Maryland planners have been talking about light rail extending south into Charles County since at least the late 1990s, but it's no higher than 4th down on the state's priority list for new transit, after the Purple Line, Corridor Cities Transitway, and Baltimore Red Line. Never mind how Montgomery's expansive BRT network fits in.

Meanwhile in Virginia, the Gallows Road route seems to be a brand new idea. There's yet to be even a feasibility study for it.

Even if governments in the DC region spend the next few decades building this network, there are sure to be changes between now and the day it's all in place. Metro's original planners didn't know Tysons would become the behemoth it is, and contemporary planners can't predict the future with 100% accuracy either.

Last year the Coalition for Smarter Growth published a report documenting every known route at that time, and already a lot has changed. More is sure to change over time.

Holes in the network

With a handful of exceptions these plans mostly come from individual jurisdictions. DC plans its streetcars, Montgomery County plans its BRT, and so on.

That kind of bottom-up planning is a great way to make sure land use and transit work together, but the downside is insular plans that leave gaps in the overall network.

Ideally there ought to be at least one connection between Fairfax and Montgomery, and Prince George's ought to be as dense with lines as its neighbors.

But still, 267 miles is an awfully impressive network. Now let's build it.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

Politics


Two Virginia candidates want a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. That is pointless and possibly destructive.

Two Virginia political candidates have called for a voter referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar. This is a bad idea.


Photo by wagaboodlemum on Flickr.

Alan Howze, one of the two, is running for Arlington County Board in November's special election. He just lost in a relatively low-turnout special election against John Vihstadt, who made the streetcar one of his main issues. The other is Patrick Hope, one of ten candidates vying for the Democratic nomination to succeed retiring US Representative Jim Moran.

But a referendum on the Columbia Pike streetcar is unecessary both practially and legally. It wouldn't change the status of the project in any material way and would just add extra time and expense to a process that has already been clear and democratic.

Debate is over for the streetcar

There is not much left to discuss about the relative merits of a streetcar versus its alternatives. In July 2012, the county board chose the streetcar after a thorough analysis of alternatives. This concluded a process that began in the 1980's and started considering transit options in 2004.

After the announcement, those who insisted that bus-only options could generate the same return for less cost challenged the decision. In response, the county commissioned another study by an independent firm. The results echoed the previous analysis that the streetcar is the best option for Columbia Pike.

When the facts are this clear, a prolonged campaign on the merits of a streetcar will not reveal anything new about the project. However, there would be plenty of opportunity for misinformation to spread widely and affect voters on election day.

This tactic doesn't make sense for streetcar supporters

It's understandable for opponents of a project to seek to delay implementation. They don't want to see something built and hope that a delay will give them more time to persuade people of their arguments or add time and expense to a project that will make it look worse than it is. We have seen this in DC, where delays to the zoning update have just added more time to a process and just watered down the changes more and more.

But a referendum that would just lengthen the process and muddy the waters doesn't make sense coming from project proponents like Howze or Delegate Hope. At best, the referendum would confirm the project is popular but delay the actual project. At worst, it would give ammunition to opponents and introduce further delays as political fights continue.

A referendum would also let opponents divert the argument away from facts. By just saying, "Let the voters decide," they would deflect any heat about false facts or mistruths they have spread about other options for the corridor.

Results would be meaningless anyway

In Virginia, a referendum is required when a local government wants to sell bonds. But neither Arlington nor Fairfax county plans to fund the streetcar with bonds. An "advisory" referendum would not have any material effect on the project. Opponents could have petitioned for a binding referendum, but if they thought they had the numbers for such a petition, they would have done it long ago.

Moreover, to hold any non-bond-related referendum, the counties would need permission from the General Assembly in Richmond. That means another layer of government to wade through for a local project that won't use any significant state funds.

Northern Virginia already has enough problems getting the state to give it control over specific regional issues. It doesn't make sense to punt this issue back to Richmond for something they never had to be involved with in the first place.

Is it just politics?

Supporters, including Howze himself, already argue that even if unpopular now, the streetcar will ultimately prove popular, as Metro and Capital Bikeshare, and other county transportation decisions are today. It's good that these candidates feel confident enough in the project that they think it can stand up to a direct electoral challenge. But there's no need to do so, the project is good, and the process has been clear.

So why hold a referendum? Hope might be seeking to stand out in a crowded field and perhaps draw some votes from streetcar opponents while remaining a supporter of the streetcar.

Howze seems to be trying to have it both ways on the streetcar: continue to appeal to voters who support it, but also give opponents less reason to work against his election. Howze started out his nomination campaign equivocating on the streetcar, and only later came out as a strong supporter.

Meanwhile, Vihstadt was able to bring together blocs of voters, often who opposed a particular county project. They were more motivated to turn out, especially in a special election. Howze may have a greater advantage in November when many voters might already be at the polls and would pick a Democrat purely based on party identification, but he also seems to be trying to hedge his bets by running to the middle on issues.

Instead, Howze, already on the defensive after losing last month's special election, should find ways to attract more pro-streetcar voters in the regular election in November. That would provide far more security for the project than trying to bet on its popularity via a referendum that ultimately wouldn't matter.

Roads


Fairfax's answer to neighbors' transit plans: Light rail, streetcars, and BRT

Not to be outdone by its neighbors' aggressive plans for rail and BRT networks, Fairfax County has an impressive transit plan of its own.


Fairfax County's proposed high quality transit network. Image from Fairfax County.

DC has its streetcar and moveDC plans, Arlington and Alexandria have streetcars and BRT, and Montgomery has its expansive BRT network, plus of course the Purple Line.

Now Fairfax has a major countrywide transit plan too, called the High Quality Transit Network. Top priorities are to finish the Silver Line and the Bailey's Crossroads portion of the Columbia Pike streetcar, but that's not the end of Fairfax's plans.

County planners are also looking at several other corridors, including Route 1, Route 7 (both east and west of Tysons), I-66, Route 28, and Gallows Road/Dolly Madison Boulevard.

Both rail and BRT are possibilities for all those corridors. Some may end up light rail or streetcar, others bus. Route 1 and I-66 could even include Metrorail extensions.

In addition to all that, Fairfax County Parkway is slated for HOT lanes, which could make express buses a more practical option there.

As the DC region continues to grow, and demand for walkable, transit-accessible communities continues to increase, these types of plans are crucial. If our major arterial highways are going to become the mixed-use main streets of tomorrow, transit on them must significantly improve.

Fairfax is undeniably still spending a lot on bigger highways. Planners' inability to calm traffic on Routes 7 and 123 through Tysons, for example, indicates roads are still priority number one. But it takes a plan to change, and this is a strong step forward. So good on Fairfax for joining the club.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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